Public voices outrage over Buckland Selectboard’s lack of action about chief

  • Buckland Town Hall. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 10/27/2021 5:00:06 PM

BUCKLAND — Residents tuned in to a virtual Selectboard meeting on Tuesday to voice their disappointment and outrage over the board’s handling of sexual assault allegations made against James Hicks, who until Oct. 18 was an auxiliary police officer following at least 30 years as department chief.

After a 37-year-old woman reported that Hicks, 55, of Buckland, had touched her inappropriately, Hicks pleaded not guilty in Northampton District Court on Aug. 26, 2019, to one count of indecent assault and battery on a person 14 or over. He was released on personal recognizance.

At least two more women have since come forward, telling the Greenfield Recorder that Hicks violated them and that charges are pending. The first case had been transferred from Greenfield District Court to avoid conflict of interest, as Hicks had worked for three decades in law enforcement in Franklin County.

Hicks retired as chief on Sept. 9 and became an auxiliary officer until sending Acting Chief Kurt Gilmore a resignation email on Oct. 18. Auxiliary officers handle traffic and parade detail but do not carry a service firearm and cannot make arrests.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Selectboard members were condemned for not suspending Hicks pending an investigation after the accusations were made. Residents called on the board to do better.

Anticipating numerous people wanting to speak, the Selectboard rearranged part of Tuesday’s agenda to accommodate the public comment portion. The meeting was moved to a virtual format due to concerns that COVID-19 health safety protocols would not allow all attendees to be accommodated in Town Hall.

Before opening the meeting to comment, Chair Zachary Turner said no Selectboard member would respond to comments because Open Meeting Law prohibits them from discussing topics not duly warned on an agenda 48 hours before a meeting. He also said certain aspects of the matter — such as the character or reputation of an individual or charges brought against a public employee — could not be discussed at a meeting, even during public comments.

Turner acknowledged and apologized for comments he made that appeared in the Greenfield Recorder. When he was asked why Hicks was not suspended when charges were filed, Turner said it is because “in this country, you’re innocent until proven guilty.”

“I made this quote out of frustration,” he read during his statement. “My response was not appropriate. It did not reflect the view of the other Selectboard members. It was a lapse of judgment that will not happen again. I am deeply sorry and I can only promise to try to do better in the future. I am far from a perfect person, but continue to strive to better myself and I’ll act with more compassion in the future.”

Teri Rutherford, of Shelburne Falls, was the first to speak, noting she is a sexual assault survivor. She expressed anger at how town officials, especially Turner, responded to the sexual assault allegations made against Hicks. She said she does not recall the Selectboard making this information available to the public for input.

“(Hicks) was able to remain an active-duty police chief until last month,” Rutherford said. “The few times Hicks was discussed during public meetings was to decide on his successor as chief of police, one that Hicks personally suggested, and then to agree to rehiring Hicks to the department following his retirement.”

Rutherford said Turner’s comments in last week’s Recorder article “made it painfully clear to the women of Buckland and surrounding towns that he believes they do not matter, that their safety does not matter, that they will not be taken seriously when they are brave enough to come forward to report sexual assault.”

She said Buckland “fostered an environment for sexual predatory crimes to flourish” by not suspending Hicks when the allegations were made. She also referenced the case of Jacob R. Wrisley, a part-time officer for the Buckland and Bernardston Police departments, who has been charged with four counts of possession of child pornography. He pleaded not guilty and was suspended from the departments. Rutherford said Wrisley’s case was never discussed at a public meeting.

“As a community member, it seems as if there is a conscious choice to sweep these crimes under the rug at the expense of our community’s safety,” she said, before asking why Town Administrator Heather Butler called to ask her not to comment at the meeting.

However, Butler told the Recorder she had simply informed Rutherford the Selectboard meeting would not have a specific item on the agenda for her to address her concerns and that public comment would be limited.

“It would not have been appropriate for me to tell her, or any other member of the public, not to participate in a meeting as they are, in fact, public meetings,” Butler wrote in an email.

Carmela Lanza-Weil said the #MeToo movement has increased the public’s consciousness regarding men in power behaving poorly without consequence. She mentioned the Roman Catholic Church, Bill Cosby, film producer Harvey Weinstein and singer-songwriter R. Kelly.

“Women are never believed. Men are excused and the powers that be, in this case the Selectboard, either make excuses or hide the complaint or just go on as if nothing happened. It is not OK anymore,” she said, adding that she was flabbergasted to learn Hicks was not suspended or removed when the charges were filed.

Lanza-Weil suggested the Selectboard apologize to Buckland residents and adopt a policy of putting on administrative leave or desk duty any town employee or volunteer charged with a serious crime, until the matter is resolved.

Sonny Walters said she would like better communication from the Selectboard, and Turner said the board is trying to work on that issue.

Rutherford then asked why Hicks was allowed to submit a self-evaluation during annual performance reviews.

“I believe that that needs to be changed,” she said.

According to a statement of probable cause filed on Aug. 16, 2018 by State Police Sgt. Thomas F. Bakey, a 37-year-old woman reported Hicks had touched her inappropriately when she visited the Buckland Police Department to report an unrelated incident of sexual harassment. She reported she had been having an ongoing issue with a neighborhood youth, who that day “made harassing comments to her, including calling out ‘nice a**.’” Bakey details in the statement that the unnamed alleged victim said Hicks wrote information onto a piece of paper and the two began to leave the station, but he then put his hand between her legs from behind and touched her genitals over her pants before telling her, “‘you do have a nice a**,” while the two walked down a short, narrow hallway.

Hicks reportedly told Bakey and Trooper Geraldine Bresnahan he had brought the woman inside the station for roughly two minutes and wrote a note on a piece of paper. The chief said he and the woman talked outside for some time, and the alleged victim and two passersby later confirmed this conversation. Hicks denied making physical contact with the woman and said he did not believe they were ever within reach of each other.

According to the statement of probable cause, there is no video surveillance inside the Buckland Police Department and Bakey could not find any cameras in the immediate area outside the building. He states he believed there was probable cause to assume Hicks had committed the accused crime.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.




Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
Fax: (413) 772-2906

 

Copyright © 2021 by Newspapers of Massachusetts, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy